Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
What makes a great musical biopic? It’s a question that Music in the Movies has pursued over the last few weeks, but it might be a question you could end up finding yourself philosophically struggling with when watching Stardust.
A film centred on the life of David Bowie is a natural choice for the music biopic genre. One of the most electrifying musical talents of all time with a back catalogue of some of the most original songs and music, the idea of a film about Bowie seems only natural, not least because Bowie, cinema and the art of the visual medium have always gone hand in hand.
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His earlier music videos were groundbreaking pioneers in the art of the music video itself, gaining predominant airplay on MTV from its earlier days; the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was the most expensive music video produced at the time of its creation. Then there was his film work. While some of his acting performances were not the most acclaimed, or brought in awards, there was something unique in his persona as a film star that worked wonders when it came to Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Tony Scott’s electrifyingly visual vampire horror thriller The Hunger.
One of his last film performances was as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, a quietly commanding piece of work from the musician that holds the attention due to his quietly intense line delivery. Perhaps no other star of the music industry lends himself to a gloriously well-produced, big-budgeted biopic that can rely on ‘Life of Mars’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ or ‘Starman’.
Unfortunately, Stardust is not that film. Biopics are not a guaranteed form of critical or commercial success (what film is at the end of the day?), but there is a perfunctory nature to Gabriel Range’s film that never quite works. A lot of it has to do with it being unable to procure the rights to use Bowie’s music. This didn’t really have to be a crutch for the film; creativity can be borne from difficult circumstances, but Range’s film doesn’t even have the legs to work as a film about Bowie as a person, which is a shame given that the film is set in the period when Bowie went by the persona of Ziggy Stardust.
The combination of Bowie’s glam rock appearance and the songs he made in that period would be an ideal part of his life to be recreated cinematically with a large budget, and even with the lack of rights to use Bowie’s music (some of the covers he sang in that period do feature), it still could have found a way into making an insightful character study of what it was to be Bowie/Stardust in that period of time.
Except, Stardust doesn’t work in that way either, and instead just trudges along, playing before your eyes. It’s a shame since Johnny Flynn, a very talented actor, has the right look and the acting abilities to make this work, but everything here is let down by Range and Christopher Bell’s screenplay which goes through the motions without bringing anything new to the table, leaving it to Flynn to do all the legwork.
If it wanted to be a nuts and bolts biopic, that might have been fine if it had the songs to fall back on. One could argue Bohemian Rhapsody was an adaptation of a Wikipedia entry on Queen, with the story restructured for the silver screen, but that film had its mini-recreation of the Rhapsody music video, the recreation of Live Aid and the entire heap of Queen songs to fall back on. Even if you didn’t like the film (and some critics were very dismissive, even if audiences lapped the whole thing up to record-breaking box office numbers), it managed to gain a buzz of electricity from Rami Malek’s performance and those incredible final scenes. Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for ‘Radio Ga-Ga’.
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If Range and Bell’s screenplay had managed to really get to grips with its attempts at exploring Bowie’s psychological make-up then it might have been better received, but it ends up feeling like one of those films that will either be forgotten about or dismissed jokily as the Bowie film without any Bowie songs. If it had an electrifying performance of ‘Starman’ or ‘Life on Mars’ to recreate, then at the very least it might have had some fire in its storytelling. However, it doesn’t and instead stutters along making you wish for a better Bowie film sometime in the future.